Illinois Air Force base invitation pressured military members to attend prayer breakfast, group says

Illinois Air Force base invitation pressured military members to attend prayer breakfast, group says

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Officials at Scott Air Force Base in Southwestern Illinois changed the wording on a prayer breakfast invitation after a religious freedom group said the original put pressure on military members to attend.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation sent a letter to Col. Jeremiah Heathman, commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing, on Thursday saying the invitation violated the First Amendment and other statutes of the Constitution.

The original invitation read, "Colonel J. Scot Heathman cordially invites you to attend the National Prayer Breakfast."

Because the invitation came in the name of the commander, attendance could be considered an order, said Michael "Mikey" Weinstein, founder of the religious freedom group.

A total of 15 officers, personnel and civilians under Heathman's command complained to the foundation about the invitation, Weinstein said. Six of those who complained, he added, identified as Christians while the others identified as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, among other faith or non-faith groups.

"Given your long and presumably honorable military service," Weinstein wrote in his letter to Heathman, "you well understand that a formal invitation from a senior commander in an airman's chain-of-command is not something to be taken casually."

On Monday, the the commander's name had been removed from the online invitation. Instead, it read, "You are cordially invited to attend the National Prayer Breakfast" with no mention of Heathman. Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the Air Force Academy and former Air Force lawyer, said the change is "a victory." He spent two years as a Judge Advocate General at Scott.

A base spokeswoman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Service members turn to the foundation to raise concerns on their behalf, Weinstein said, because subordinates fear backlash if they speak out against their commander.

Additionally, Weinstein said an RSVP requirement could force service members to identify their religious beliefs or lack thereof through attending or not. The RSVP function remained on the revised invitation, but did not require attendees to disclose any religious affiliation.

The foundation has criticized other Air Force bases and academies for similar religious events. In 2011, the group sued the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs over inviting a religiously conservative speaker to a National Prayer Luncheon, suggesting service members feared retribution if they did not attend.

Weinstein referenced the event in his letter to Heathman.

"There is still ample time for you to remediate your unconstitutional actions" before the foundation takes legal action, Weinstein wrote. He went on to suggest officials remove mention of the commander's name from the invitation.

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